by Cherie Rankin
English 6923: Working-Class Literature
Grace Lumpkin was born into one of Georgia's upper-class planter families in Milledgeville, Georgia, around 1892. Due to financial losses during the Reconstruction, the Lumpkin family left the family plantation in Georgia for Columbia, South Carolina, in 1900. Grace's father, William Lumpkin, was a Confederate veteran, who instilled in his children a strong sense of pride for the southern cause. The family eventually moved to a farm in Richland County, South Carolina, where Grace and her siblings first came in close, daily contact--at school and in the community--with the poverty of many of the families, both black and white, around them. These early experiences, followed by Grace's eventual work as a teacher and home demonstration agent in the mountain regions of North Carolina, provided much of the material for her later novels about the working classes of the region.
Lumpkin's literary career began in college, where she wrote for several school publications. She eventually got a job, in 1925, at the Quaker publication The World Tomorrow. This job brought her in touch with the labor movement, and with the Communist Party. Lumpkin grew increasingly dedicated to the Party's cause and message, finding it, in some ways, a substitute for the strong Episcopal faith instilled in her by her family, though she never formally joined. Her first professional publication, "White Man--A Story" came out in The New Masses in 1927, and she joined its staff in 1928.
Lumpkin was eventually sent to Gastonia, North Carolina to engage in and rally support for a strike at the Gastonia textile mills, an experience out of which arose her first novel, To Make My Bread, released in 1932. The novel met with success, winning the Gorky Prize, and was excerpted in several radical publications of the day. Lumpkin's second novel, A Sign for Cain (1935) was much more explicitly communist-oriented than her first; Lumpkin later suggested that this was largely due to pressure from the Party itself. By the time her third novel, The Wedding, was published in 1939, support for the Communist Party (in general, and Lumpkin's in particular) were on the decline, and its message was conspicuously absent from the work.
Eventually Lumpkin turned sharply away from the Communist Party and many of those involved in it, testifying before the Sub-Committee on Government Operations in 1953, and providing all the details she was asked for. Her testimony shocked many of those who knew her during her time working for the Party, and surely severed what ties remained. Full Circle (1962) was Lumpkin's last novel, and its title is indicative of Lumpkin's life. The plot revolves around a female protagonist who leaves the church, becomes deeply involved in the workings of the Communist Party, and ultimately finds herself returning--at a crisis point in her life--to the church and the faith she had earlier abandoned. Lumpkin herself regarded her past experience within the Party as negative, and spent her later life decrying Communism. She returned--emphatically--to the church and the faith she was steeped in as a child.
Lumpkin's first two novels, To Make My Bread and A Sign for Cain, are her most obvious contributions to working-class literature. The first chronicles the lives of the McClure family, poor mountain farmers whose land is stolen out from under them by a logging corporation. Failing to make a go of tenant farming, the family moves down to the mill town of Gastonia, North Carolina, where eventually the entire family--children included--becomes employed and/or exploited by the mill management. Lumpkin's portrayal of the harshness of mill life, the exploitation of the working classes, and the (thwarted) promise of unionization is a stark picture of what working class life in the mill was like, especially for women, who often worked extremely long hours in the mills only to return home and work a second exhausting shift caring for their families.
A central theme in the novel is the particular plight of working class women in the Gastonia mills, regardless of race--both white and black women working in the mill struggle to bring in wages while also tending to the needs of their families. Other themes in the work are cross-class relations (how the middle and upper classes perceive and interact with the working class), the all- too-common use of child labor, religion as a tool for pacifying the disgruntled worker, and an understated emphasis on the potential of socialist doctrine for worker organization and power.
A Sign for Cain focuses on the post-Reconstruction South, where, freed from slavery, most blacks live a hand-to-mouth existence, often unable to separate themselves from the old ties of slavery whether they want to (as is the case with the younger characters) or not (often the case with the older characters, who feel a compelling loyalty to the former owners who enslaved them). The plight of working-class blacks is shared in the novel by poor white sharecroppers, who struggle to survive from harvest to harvest on land that is not their own. A Sign for Cain is more boldly Communist-inspired; the black protagonist, Dennis, has returned from the North armed with a CP membership card and organizing materials. His mission is to organize workers--black and white alike--and increase their power as a bargaining group. Because black characters have a more central role in the novel,
A Sign for Cain also deals with the intersections of class and race. Again, in this novel, Lumpkin shines a strong light on inter-class relations, setting an old aristocratic Southern family from the planter class against working-class blacks and whites, as well as against the novel's more middle-class characters such as boarding-house owners and newspaper reporters. Thus, both texts question the ways in which the working class is exploited and controlled.. Both texts also illustrate the power differentials that work against the working class, and see organization--across lines of gender and race--as a viable solution. Though To Make My Bread is more centrally concerned with the particular plight of working class women, and A Sign for Cain is more centrally an examination of working-class race relations, both texts make clear that class status is integrally intersected by race and gender.
Lumpkin, Katharine Du Pre. The Making of A Southerner. 1946. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1992.
Sowinska, Suzanne. Introduction. To Make My Bread. By Grace Lumpkin. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1995. vii-xliii. Novels by Grace Lumpkin
Full Circle. Boston: Western Islands, 1962.
To Make My Bread. 1932. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1995.
A Sign for Cain. New York: Lee Furman, 1935.
The Wedding. 1939. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1976.
"The Artist in a Hostile Environment" (with Esther Shemitz). World Tomorrow, April 1926: 108-10.
"The Bridesmaids Carried Lilies." North American Review 243.2 (Summer 1937): 4.
"How I Returned to the Christian Faith." Christian Economics 23 June 1964: 4.
"The Law and the Spirit." National Review 25 May 1957: 498-99.
"A Miserable Offender." Virginia Quarterly Review 11.2 (April 1935): 281-88.
"Southern Woman Bares Tricks of Higher Ups to Shunt Lynch Mob Blame." Daily Worker 27 November 1933: 3.
"The Treasure." O. Henry Memorial Award Prize Stories of 1940. Ed. Harry Hansen. New York: Doubleday, 1940.
"Two Sketches." Partisan Review 1.1 (1934): 3-11.
"White Man--A Story." New Masses September 1927: 7-8.
"Why I As A White Southern Woman Will Vote Communist." Daily Worker 12 August 1932: 4.
Foley, Barbara. Radical Representations: Politics and Form in U.S. Proletarian Fiction, 1929-1941. Durham: Duke UP, 1993.
In the chapter "Women and the Left," Foley writes that "most female proletarian novelists insistently link women's liberation with class emancipation" (235). Accordingly, Foley examines the role of several women's proletarian novels (Page's The Gathering Storm, Lumpkin's To Make My Bread, and Agnes Smedley's Daugher of Earth) in advancing the causes of feminism, through their portrayal of the particular hardships faced by women laborers, especially those whose burdens also included those of a family.
Hall, Jacquelyn Dowd. “Women Writers, the ‘Southern Front’, and the Dialectical Imagination." Journal of Southern History 69.1 (Feb 2003): 3-36.
Hall explores Grace Lumpkin's biography in conjunction with the fictional To Make My Bread. Particularly, Hall considers the social mores, historical events, and political movements that were central in Lumpkin's life, which appear within the text of the novel. Central among these shaping forces is Lumpkin's upbringing in the post-Reconstruction south and her father's devotion to the lost Southern Cause.
Hall, Jacquelyn Dowd "Open Secrets: Memory, Imagination, and the Refashioning of Southern Identity." American Quarterly 50.1 (1998): 109-24.
Part of a larger piece on the Lumpkin sisters and their memories--and how those memories shaped their writing--the author gives a poignant picture of an elderly Grace Lumpkin, largely either unwilling or unable to revisit her past. Hall describes Lumpkin's need to make clean breaks--first from her family, then from the Communist part--and retreat when she is at a turning point in her life. The paradoxes of Grace Lumpkin's life are acute, with traces of her radicalism still clinging to her despite a sharp turn back toward family and religion.
Hapke, Laura. Labor's Text: The Worker in American Fiction. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2001.
Hapke points out that in contrast to fictionalized representations, women workers actually had very little actual power in the strikes of Gastonia. While the women novelists' portrayals of female characters were generally more thoughtfully written than those written by their male counterparts, the empowered female characters in the women's novels had few real-life examples. Hapke notes that the one common nod to an actual female striker is the appearance--in all the novels--of a character based on strike songstress Ella May Wiggins, who was shot and killed during the Gastonia violence.
Lumpkin, Katharine Du Pre. The Making of a Southerner. 1946. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1992.
Written by Grace Lumpkin's sister, this autobiobraphy explains the ties the Lumpkins had to the Old South and to the peculiar institution of slavery, including how the Lumpkins struggled to adjust during and after Reconstruction. Katharine recounts her gradual shift from comfortable Southern woman to social activist, as she slowly comes to see the injustice of racism and undertakes a life of activism. Her autobiography paints a vivid picture of the upbringing that surely shaped both she and her sister Grace, and examines why, when it would have been so easy to remain blind, she (and ultimately, her sister) chose to acknowledge the wrongs of racism and classism and address them in a public forum.
Mellard, James. "The Fiction of Social Commitment." The History of Southern Literature. Eds. Louis D. Rubin, Jr., et. al. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1990. 351-55.
Mellard views To Make My Bread within the context of agrarian, "Southern protest fiction" (351). This brief treatment places the series of Communism-inspired Gastonia novels within a specifically Southern frame, within a specific Southern culture, history, and tradition.
Rabinowitz, Paula. Labor and Desire: Women's Revolutionary Fiction in Depression America. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1991.
Lumpkin's To Make My Bread is considered within the chapter on "The Great Mother," which explores the representation of motherhood within proletarian fiction; specifically, Rabinowitz explores the ways in which motherhood could be seen as a source of collectivity, but at the same time, be seen as (especially in the case of childbirth) a defining, separating, even frightening experience, especially when it takes place under the male gaze.
Sowinska, Suzanne. Introduction. To Make My Bread. By Grace Lumpkin. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1995. vii-xliii.
Far and away the most complete and concise history on Lumpkin's life, family, and work. Sowinska provides a thorough look at the forces that shaped Lumpkin, including her early upbringing, her Southern roots, and the Episcopal church of her mother. Lines between Lumpkin's early life and her later fiction are clearly drawn. Also provided are accounts of Lumpkin's movement into and beyond the Communist Party of the United States, including Lumpkin's eventual testimony before a congressional sub-committee in which she informed on many of her former friends and associates. Sowinska provides an in-depth look at Lumpkin's life from a well-researched angle, concluding with a thorough bibliography of Lumpkin's work and other sources in which Lumpkin and her work are mentioned.
Grace Lumpkin Papers, available at the Archives of the South Caroliniana Library, The University of South Carolina